Floor Fees and Thick Libertarianism
Readers of this blog, especially those who have long since concluded that partisan politics is useless or worse, can be pardoned if they’ve avoided reading about or participating in the ongoing dispute over the tentative decision to charge a floor fee to delegates participating in the 2010 Libertarian National Convention.
That’s because more than one participant in the floor fee debate has clearly emphasized that certain kinds of practices in voluntary organizations don’t seem to fit comfortably with libertarian principles.
Typically, proponents of “plumb-line” libertarianism maintain that any conduct that is consistent with the non-aggression principle is unexceptionable from a libertarian standpoint, even if there may be good reason to object to it on other grounds. Some go even farther, seeming to dismiss objections to conduct that is consistent with the NAP as reflective of essentially arbitrary cultural or æsthetic preferences.
Comments made in the course of the floor fee debate suggest that thoughtful libertarians instinctively disagree.
Thus, for instance, David Nolan observes that he believes “there’s a strong INVERSE correlation between a person’s eagerness to cite Robert’s Rules of Order and their gut-level devotion to liberty. RR is a procedural manual, devised to maintain order at large and otherwise unwieldy meetings. It is not a code of law, and I instinctively distrust anyone who revels in its minutiae.”
Obviously, any voluntary organization should be free to adopt and follow Robert’s Rules of Order. And a critic of thick libertarianism might well say that nothing else really needed saying. But Nolan’s comment suggests that he thinks caring about freedom means caring about more than just the baseline question whether disputes are resolved at gunpoint. Perhaps this is because it’s hard, psychically, to care about freedom from aggression if one doesn’t care about freedom from arbitrary impositions by voluntary organizations, so that cultivating the habit of resisting such impositions is a necessary preparation for resisting aggressions. Or perhaps a preference for freedom of movement within a voluntary organization flows from the same moral principle or sensibility that grounds opposition to aggression. Or perhaps the explanation lies elsewhere. The point is that, as Nolan rightly sees, being a friend of freedom means more than just being an opponent of aggression.
Or consider this set of observations from Carolyn Marbry: “Does anyone else find it ironic to the point of tragedy that the LIBERTARIAN party is so rule bound and governed to death that it’s being held hostage by professional registered parliamentarian high priests on this point . . . ? What could possibly be the problem with leaving this rather important deviation from precedent to be decided by the delegates in St. Louis, rather than ramming it down the throats of the party under the guise of appeal to authority? Wasn’t this the same group of folks who said that what was done to Lee Wrights was legitimate before the party’s own judicial committee tossed it out? These people are NOT Libertarians (which, I understand, is why they were consulted in the first place), they’re apparently NOT familiar with our philosophy (e.g., opposing taxes and favoring SMALLER government with LESS POWER, power concentrated at the lower eschelons of government if not entirely with the governed rather than at the top…) . . . .”
Again: not being “rule bound and governed to death” is, Marbry rightly emphasizes, a problem in a voluntary organization, as is “ramming . . . [a decision] down . . . [people’s] throats . . . under the guise of appeal to authority.” The basic libertarian political conviction that what matters is “SMALLER government with LESS POWER, power concentrated at the lower eschelons of government if not entirely with the governed rather than at the top” is obviously relevant, Marbry realizes, to the ways in which a purely voluntary society operates. That’s because, I would argue, an underlying philosophy of freedom comes to expression both in opposition to aggressive violence and in a commitment to giving people in any context as much opportunity as possible to make the decisions that affect their lives, rather than being subject to decisions made by others.
The same point is made repeatedly in related contexts. One proponent of the floor fee has argued that “pay as you go” and “don’t subsidize” are basic libertarian principles—not just limits on the behavior of the state. And another libertarian stressed to me recently that commitment to a style of party organization reflective of support for Lenin’s “democratic centralism” is itself un-libertarian.
What this admittedly unscientific sample suggests to me is that thick libertarianism is not an exercise in leftist subterfuge: it’s the common sense of many libertarians, who see no reason to isolate their more narrowly political convictions from their sense of fairness more broadly.
Being a libertarian means more (though never less) than being opposed to settling disputes with guns. It means caring about freedom, and freedom can be suppressed within voluntary organizations and relationships. Libertarians who aren’t radicals clearly understand that there’s a non-arbitrary consonance, something that extends beyond mere æsthetic or cultural preference, between libertarian politics and concern for freedom even when it’s not being infringed on violently. The point that people snarkily dismiss “thickists” for making seems intuitively obvious to ordinary libertarians (if there are such creatures) who don’t spend most of their free time reading Charles Johnson or Kevin Carson or even Kerry Howley. I think that’s a good sign.